Well-meaning bigotry, Midwest-style

Jason Clayworth published a big feature on Christian Fong in Wednesday’s Des Moines Register. I recommend clicking over to read the whole thing before it disappears into the Register’s pay-to-download archive. Fong’s campaign strategy has always interested me, especially his efforts to sound inclusive while remaining faithful to conservative Republican views on social issues.

I was tempted to write a post here making fun of Fong’s balancing act on gay rights. He told Clayworth that after passing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage,

Iowa lawmakers need to make sure such rights as hospital visitation and estate planning are equal for same-sex couples, he said.

“If a constitutional amendment were passed, it would be irresponsible to throw up our hands and say, ‘We’re done.’ ” Fong said. “There are going to have to be steps that are taken to make sure we treat all Iowans fairly and compassionately. Gay people, too.”

So I’m thinking about how “fair” and “compassionate” it is to let conservatives’ religious views override a minority group’s civil marriage rights, and I’m laughing at Fong’s continuing attempts to advocate for discrimination very respectfully.

And then a sidebar (available only in the print version) stopped me in my tracks:

Christian Fong says he feels a special responsibility as a racial minority candidate.

Growing up, Fong used his middle name, Shun-Bok, given to him by his Chinese father.

When he was considering medical school at the University of Iowa, he was told he should consider going by something other than Shun-Bok because the industry did not need more Asians in medicine.

He’s gone by Christian–his first name–ever since.

That kick in the gut (dressed up as a helpful hint) got me thinking about the mixed messages minorities get from nice, polite Midwesterners.

Fong downplayed the significance of the incident, telling Clayworth, “I don’t want to say racism has hurt me. It’s just my name.” And of course, there’s nothing wrong with changing your name. I have two friends who decided as adults to go by their middle names, rather than the first names their parents gave them.

But think about what some jackass told the high-achieving 19-year-old Fong. You’re good enough to be a doctor, but is there any way you could make yourself less Chinese? We’ve got so many Asian doctors these days.

That must have been hurtful to hear. All Fong had done was work hard to make the most of his talents, and here was somebody making him worry about his name putting people off.

You can be sure that no one has ever told a prospective med school applicant that the industry doesn’t need more white people.

The idiot’s advice doesn’t even make sense–going by his first name wouldn’t change Fong’s appearance or his Asian surname. Patients would have called him “Dr. Fong,” not “Dr. Shun-Bok.”

Fong eventually decided against a medical career and went to business school. He’s done very well and obviously hasn’t been held back by anyone’s bigoted views.

Since reading the article about Fong, I’ve been thinking about the children of Asian immigrants I knew growing up here in the 1970s and 1980s. Iowa was a nice place to settle, with good schools and lots of opportunities. It’s not as if anyone threw bricks through their windows or left racist graffiti on their homes.

Then again, how many subtle messages did they receive from white Iowans, telling them not to appear too “different”? With only one exception I can remember, the Asian-American kids I knew went by generic-sounding American first names. They didn’t learn to speak their parents’ native languages well. Their parents didn’t seem to want them to learn Chinese or Korean.

Come to think of it, the Jewish kids I grew up with also had typical American first names. I remember meeting Jewish kids in college with names like Noah and Avi. That was unheard of in Iowa. Our parents weren’t ashamed of our religion, but they clearly didn’t want us to stand out so much. It’s different now, as Old Testament names are quite trendy with Christians as well as Jews. Since my kids were born, I’ve met non-Jewish moms with young boys named Eli, Isaac, Levi and Cohen (yes, as a first name).

Many Iowa cities and towns have more ethnic minorities than they did a few decades ago. Yet in 2007, Tom Tancredo got applause at his presidential campaign stops here when he would say he was tired of hearing “Press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish.” Clearly a significant number of Iowans don’t like diversity being so “in their face.”

Changing attitudes about sexual orientation make it possible for gay and lesbian couples to be out of the closet even in small Iowa cities and towns, which is a huge change from the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, even recently I’ve heard straight people say things like, “I don’t care what they do in private, I just wish they wouldn’t flaunt it so much.” Or, they claim not to have a problem with homosexuals as people, but they still feel uncomfortable with the idea of gay marriage.

The bottom line is, you’re never helping a minority group by telling them, “I’m ok with who you are, as long as you don’t challenge my sense of what’s normal.”

Fong doesn’t condemn gay people and wants to protect their inheritance and visitation rights. At the same time, he says they should not be able to get married unless the majority of Iowa voters feel comfortable with that.

No one has to approve of same-sex marriage any more than they have to like someone else’s unusual name. But there’s a reason this country has traditionally not subjected minority rights to a majority vote. I would encourage Fong to reflect on that and rethink his idea of treating gay Iowans fairly and compassionately.

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